A surge in violent crime within the Arab communities in Israel has recently led to what might be a groundbreaking protest. Recently, after the High Committee of Arab leaders declared a state of emergency in the face of a deadly crime wave which left 73 dead in Arab communities just this year, thousands of young Arab took to the streets to protest police inaction. The protesters called on the government to confiscate rampant firearms in the communities. "We refuse to be victims of another crime" they chanted.

Acceptance constitutes acceptance of the Website Terms of Use

Arabs and Jews protesting together in Tamra against governmental inaction in the face of the surge in violence in the Arab communities. October 12 2019. Credit: Standing Together

The High Committee of Arab leaders declared a general strike at the end of September, and protests are continuing well into October.

"We consider Prime Minister Netanyahu and Police Minister Erdan personally responsible for the high rates of violent crime in the Arab communities" said the committee in a statement.

The protesters are demanding greater police action to tackle the high rates of crime in Arab communities. The committee has warned that the large amount of illegal firearms in Arab communities, mostly held by criminal organizations, is the greatest cause of high rates of killings. The protestors claim that the Israeli police turns a blind eye to the illegal firearms crisis, and are demanding that the government take action to reduce firearm ownership.

"We want to live in firearm free communities. Just last month we buried 14 people," said MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, the Arab party that won 13 seats in the newly elected Knesset (Israel's parliament). "Since the year 2000, 1,385 Arabs have been victims of murder. We must unite in an effort to stop this violence. We must take major steps to increase law enforcement in our communities, and tackle organized crime."

The protests also highlights a shift in the Arab leadership's attitude to the Israeli government. Recent years have seen an increasing willingness to cooperate with the government in an effort to improve standards of living in Arab communities. In 2016, Arab leaders gave their consent to a 13 billion shekel (3.8 billion dollar) five year investment plan known in Israel as "Resolution 922," which funds improvements in infrastructure and education in Arab communities.

Protesters march against the surge in killings in Majd al-Krum, in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum, Northen Israel. October 3, 2019. Photo by David Cohen/FLASH90

The Arab minority inside Israel's internationally recognized borders makes up 20 percent of Israel's population. They are at large confused with the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and deal internally and externally with questions of identity and belonging. Legally, they have equal rights as citizens but in reality they suffer from discrimination in many aspects of daily life.

In an unprecedented move, MK Odeh of the Joint List recently decided to recommend Benny Gantz for premiership, in an effort to oust four-term Prime Minister Netanyahu. Arab parties have traditionally abstained from recomending, preferring not to participate in the Israeli political process. This attitude seems to be changing slowly. The demand to see more police activity in Arab communities in an effort to make them safer, is truly unprecedented. Somewhat understandably, Arabs in Israel tend to mistrust the police, and the call for deeper law enforcement involvement in Arab communities signals that the leadership is prepared to cooperate with the Israeli government to improve living standards

Criminal violence and family feuds have been a problem for years and are reaching a crisis point in Arab communities. This September alone, a staggering 13 Arabs were killed in crime related incidents. Two weeks ago, two young men were killed in a scuffle between gangs in the Arab town of Majd el-Krum and were buried the same day. The funeral had to be secured by a large police force, for fear of retaliation from rival gangs.

"Blood runs in our streets, and everyone knows what the solution to this crisis is. We need two things – a roundup of all firearms and higher spending on education,” said MK Odeh, who attended the funeral. 

It's a deadly mix of poverty, illegal firearms and a deep mistrust towards law enforcement

Ja'afer Farah, head of the Mossawa Center, an organization dedicated to promoting equality for Arab citizens of Israel, said that there is reason for optimism in the latest protests.

"Two days ago I met young students from one of the northern Arab villages organizing a demonstration, demanding security. Lots of young people are taking to the streets – it’s their life, and they're demanding that the authorities take responsibility," Farah told Davar.

Protest by school children striking in Nazareth. Credit: Mosawa Center

Farah insists that violence in the Arab communities is not an isolated issue and claims that the violence crisis cannot be dealt with without tackling the deeper inequalities between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

"Half of the Arab population in Israel lives in poverty. That's a huge amount, and is one of the greatest causes of the levels of violence. It's a deadly mix of poverty, illegal firearms and a deep mistrust towards law enforcement," he said.

"Confiscation of firearms is crucial, but it's not enough. What we really need is government policy to improve economic prospects for young Arabs and close the gaps between our communities and Jewish ones," said Farah. "For instance, the foundation of criminal activity in the Arab towns is the black market. The government makes no effort to incentivize banks to expand into Arab communities. We hardly have any access to regulated financial services, and so people are forced into borrowing from criminal organizations."

Protesting violence in the Arab communities. Majd El Krum, October 3rd 2019

Farah claims that this often has disastrous effects on families in Arab communities. Lenders use violence to extract payments from debtors, including arson, vandalism and murder.

"If they kill you and don’t manage to get their money, they go after your family" he said. "When you go to the police to complain, you never know if they'll report you to your creditors, and then you're in big trouble. Everyone knows it’s best not to complain."

Negative feelings such as these towards the police are very common in Arab communities in Israel. Even though the government has spent billions in recent years in developing Arab towns, much of which has been used to fund several new police stations, most Arabs agree that not much has changed.

"Every Jewish person must take an interest in what goes on in the Arab communities. Life in the Jewish towns are also affected by crime in the Arab towns," said Farah.

State of emergency

Since the beginning of the protests, the Israeli police has announced a series of measures to tackle soaring violence in Arab communities. Among them are adding hundreds of additional police officers in Arab towns and an increase in funding for existing police activity.

Israel's Police Minister, Gilad Erdan, announced last week:"We are in a state of emergency. I have ordered the police to enhance law enforcement efforts in Arab communities. I call the Arab leadership in Israel to join our efforts to increase law enforcement and security in Arab communities". This is the same minister who said Arab communities have a very violent culture. This statement, understandably, did not improve his standing with Arab leadership.

Many in the Arab leadership have expressed doubts in Mr. Erdan's intentions, and have said that increasing public spending on law enforcement will not be enough. But even though Arab communities tend to be extremely suspicious towards the police, the Arab leadership is united in calling for police presence and a deeper cooperation with Arab communities.

Farah said that the leaders of the Arab communities in Israel have come to realize that cooperation with the police and government is the only way to tackle street violence and raise standards of living for Arabs.

"But in itself, it's not enough. We must also deal with the many urgent social issues in our communities. We have to stop letting 15 year old boys drop out of school. That’s how they wind up part of these criminal organizations."

One of the main driving forces behind the extent of criminal activity in the Arab communities is high levels of poverty. According to many in the Arab community, a lack of access to the banking system and regulated credit is fueling organized crime by forcing many Arabs to turn to the black market for unregulated loans.

"Most people, especially Arabs, can't afford to buy a home without taking out a mortgage. That's obvious. But Arabs have a particularly difficult time getting a mortgage" said Raid Abu-Raiyah, head of the small business department at Bank Hapoalim, Israel’s largest commercial bank. "Houses in Arab towns tend not to be registered properly. The ownership is often not registered as required by law. This can cause a great deal of trouble for Arabs looking for a loan, because the house can't serve as collateral."

This means that Arabs looking for a mortgage are often turned down, and have to turn to the black market for a loan.

"This is a big problem. Some families do manage to get a small loan from the bank, but these are poor families we're talking about, so they can only get very small loans. Most Israeli Arab families are categorized as low income households, so they might be eligible for a small loan for their bank, but they'll still have to get most of it from the black market," Abu-Raiyah said.

This state of affairs is a major component in what allows organized crime to control the streets of the Arab towns and villages. Trying to end the violence has to start with tackling the many economic challenges facing the large Arab minority in Israel.